Saturday, February 24, 2007

Book 122

Much of my reading is not done alone.
I read with my friend, and she is the better half of our elite Book Club.
We are now reading our 123rd book together.
Emma Donaghue’s excellent collection of short stories, entitled Touchy Subjects. Emma is one of our most beloved, favorite authors.
The one before this, our 122nd book, was Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman.
She had read it, and taught it to many classrooms, before revisiting it with me.
For me, it was a first time experience. When we covered the book in high school, I guess I was absent that year! Or stoned!
Having now read it in complete middle-aged sobriety, I am amazed at how the book stays with me. While I am driving to work in the morning, all week, I find myself thinking about Willy Loman, and Biff… marvelling at what Miller created.

My friend is somewhat of a Miller expert, having read his autobiographical Timebends, as well as the more recent bio by Martin Gottfried.
In our discussions, she related some fascinating information concerning little-known Miller-trivia. And nothing fascinated me more than the following, regarding the fact that Miller’s first impulse upon conceiving the idea for the play, was to construct a building, wherein he would [in solitude] flesh out his ideas, and DO the writing of the story of Willy Loman.
She told me, and I quote:

So, Miller had only “the first two lines and a death” when he decided – he KNEW – that he would need to find a place to write other than where he was. He needed a room of his own, so to say, and he went to a place he owned – a remote wooded area (shades of Thoreau) – and --- started BUILDING a cabin there. Instead of writing the play, he threw himself into the building of that cabin. He had “no knowledge or experience” of construction, but strongly felt the need to do this before tackling the play. He says, “for reasons I still do not understand, it had to be my own hands that gave it form, on this ground, with a floor that I had made, upon which to sit to begin the risky expedition into myself.”

Wow…. I am all ears….
She goes on to explain:

“It’s all right. I came back” – Willy’s opening words – “rolled over and over” in Miller’s head all the time he was building the thing. “Further than that I dared not, would not, venture until I could sit in the completed studio….”

He says all that time he was “afraid I would never be able to penetrate past those first two lines.”

He started writing one morning… amid the smell of sawdust in this unpainted room… It was April, things just coming into bloom… and he wrote all day until dark, then had dinner and went back and wrote until sometime between midnight and four a.m.
He skipped scenes that he knew would come easy and that he could write in later…and went “for the parts that had to be muscled into position.”

By morning he had done the first of two acts.
It would take six weeks to write act two.
But when he lay down to sleep on that first morning, he realized he had been weeping.

When the play was finished, he sent it to Kazan [his director] for a reading. He sat by the phone for two days, waiting.
Finally on the end of the second silent day, he called. He said, “'I’ve read your play.' He sounded at a loss to give me the bad news. 'My God, it’s so sad.'”
“It’s supposed to be.”
“I just put it down. I don’t know what to say. My father. . . "
He broke off, the first of a great many men – and women – who would tell me that Willy was their father.”
In many ways, Willy was MY father. [My dad was a salesman].
And in many ways, I am Biff, the son the father could never understand.
The son who could never understand his father.
My dad is gone now, as is Biff’s, in the play. Perhaps these above reasons are a part of why the story has resonated so deeply with me. But even as I think this, I know that the play’s power exceeds anything so subjective. Every thoughtful reader will see so much of LIFE, splayed out in Death Of A Salesman. And from a literary perspective, you will see genius.
I just want to encourage anyone who has not experienced Miller’s magnum opus to get it. Read it. You will be moved and shaken.
The man has poured so much of his soul into this work.
It cannot but speak to yours, in the reading.



Anonymous said...

Oh, you lucky, lucky man!

I do hope you properly appreciate the brilliance of this reading partner of yours.

I bet she feels the same about you.

"We read to know we are not alone." C. S. Lewis

cipriano said...

Thank you, anonymous.
I do appreciate her, yes!

Dorothy W. said...

What interesting stories about Miller. I've read and even taught this play, and I agree with you about its greatness.

patricia said...

I haven't read that play for a long time. Probably not since high school. I remember it as being so very, very depressing. Not sure if I could take reading it again -- would have to be in a certain frame of mind.

Whenever I hear the name 'Willie Lowman' I always think of this thing that happened in my grade 13 Elizabethan poetry and drama class. This guy in my class (whom I was dating and was totally in love with, foolish girl that I was) did a presentation of 'King Lear' where he argued what a lousy, lame play it was. I remember so vividly that he said that King Lear was "the Willie Lowman of the Elizabethan stage." Our teacher got so mad at him she threw balled up wads of paper at him at the end of his presentation.

Anonymous said...

Vivid portrayal there, Patricia.

I think I can understand the teacher's frustration. It is difficult to love a piece of literature (which I presume your teacher did) and have your students not share that love.

However, Lear is not exactly what I would call 13th grade material. Nor, really, is Death of a Salesman, in my opinion, though both are fairly consistently found as staples of secondary school curriculum in the U. S.

It's a dilemma.

Trouble with teaching the classics to The Young (and I do it myself) is that they lack the maturity to read them, and so they miss a lot of what can come only through having some years tacked onto you.

But – the real tragedy, as I see it, is that they may never again read those books because they think that they have experienced them already – and they were “boring.”


“The readiness is all,” to quote yet another tragic hero who is probably underappreciated by his high school audiences.

Teaching the wonderful Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, in fifth grade may seem like a good idea at the time, but what fifth grader can really fathom the depth of Huck's moral decision when, deciding to keep Jim from being sold back into slavery, he declares, "All right, then, I'll go to hell"?

Indeed, what adult really can? Those words resonate with heroism. With a courage not often found in the best of adults - who have not even the guts to say what we think, let alone risk eternal damnation on a principle we believe in.

In that declaration, Huck really, really believes he is doomed if he doesn't turn Jim in; thus, it is his decision to not betray Jim, despite his firm conviction that this will be his eternal punishment, that makes him one of our greatest American heroes.

Same with Lear, the poor old thing.

Yes, or even the down and out Willy Loman is heroic. And by the way, Miller denied that there was any play on the words Low Man; he got the name from an old Fritz Lang film - another bit of trivia to pursue later, perhaps. Willy's death is actually a positive action as outlined by Miller in “Tragedy and the Common Man.”

Though he is wrongheaded – and aren’t we all from time to time? – Willy has been backed into a corner where the only thing he can think to do to regain his human dignity is to commit suicide. He is, he feels, “worth more dead than alive.”

No, of course, he isn’t.

But Miller’s heroes tend to operate best on their own self-inflicted moral codes.

And that is one reason I find them not depressing, but heroic. Courageous in the way they go against the flow. Even unto death.

The play is depressing, I suppose, in a sense, but what is beautiful about all of these works, I feel, is that, ultimately, they speak to the potential greatness of Man.

Miller feels that the tragic speaks to our conviction that we do count. He says in “Tragedy and the Common Man” that compassion occurs when we realize that “we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing--his sense of personal dignity.”

I think Miller was also very concerned with the callous forces that ignite those dehumanizing conditions with which the hero must do battle. Miller was a social reformer, a great believer in us – despite the disappointing things we do.

He lived his creed, as we all know, refusing to bow to Joe McCarthy’s HUAC investigations.

Really, what teenager can be expected to take in Miller or Shakespeare’s attempts to show us “what a piece of work is a man…”?

So, bottom line: If we must teach Lear and Salesman to hyper-hormoned teenagers, I say, go ahead and pelt them with balls of paper when they dis the work.
They still may not "get it" but at least it may show them that we have an emotional attachment to the works we are asking them to study.

And maybe that is a tiny little bit heroic of us.

May said...

Nice, not "Death of a Salesman"

patricia said...

You make a very good point, anon. A lot of the reading material force fed to us as teenagers was probably not very much appreciated (or truly understood) because we were all, for the most part, 'tabula rasas' -- we had a lot of living to do, before we could empathize with characters from say, Death of a Salesman or King Lear. I know that when I reread Shakespeare now, I certainly view it all from a very different vantage point. Same goes for Thomas Hardy, which I now love, though as a teenager, I wasn't too thrilled with having to read his works.

Heh...I also recall that this same smart-assed boyfriend called Eugene O'Neil's play 'Long Day's Journey Into Nothing.'


danielle said...

Did you know Emma D is coming out with a new book? It looks interesting.

cipriano said...

Danielle, that is exciting. She is so fabulously good.
You know, I had heard about this new book but I cannot find my own information on it.
Do you know what it is about, the title?
.... Anything?
A true Donoghue fan. [not Phil].